Judging a Book By Its Head Covering
Apparently the New York Times Book Review now runs tzitzit checks. Or, in my case, a sheitel check.
In her recent essay titled, “The Observant Reader,” Wendy Shalit takes issue with the way Orthodox Judaism is portrayed in various works of fiction. She chastises several fiction writers — myself included — for misrepresenting Orthodoxy, particularly ultra-Orthodoxy, and takes us to task for pretending to be what she calls “insiders.” “Some writers claim to portray ultra-Orthodox Jews from an insider’s perspective. But are these writers really insiders?” she asks rhetorically.
Although I live my life as an Orthodox Jew, I’m described as being merely “familiar with some traditional customs” and thus have no right to “imagine” myself an “expert.” Nathan Englander eats treif, so apparently he has nothing to say about Orthodoxy. Jonathan Rosen and Tova Reich don’t portray Orthodoxy in glowing terms, either; therefore they’ve “renounced their Orthodoxy” or were “never really exposed to it in the first place.” Shalit is essentially judging a book by its head covering: The writers to whom she awards a kosher seal of approval earn it as much for the sheitels on their heads as for their words on the page.
Shalit is a latter day Leopold Wapter, the judge in Philip Roth’s 1979 novel, “The Ghostwriter,” who asks the young Nathan Zuckerman in a letter: “Do you practice Judaism? If so, how? If not, what credentials qualify you to write about Jewish life for national magazines?” At stake here is the question of who owns the imaginative rights to a way of life. Her assertion that Englander and I, in particular, lack these so-called credentials is troubling for two reasons. One, it’s not true. But second, and more importantly, it’s irrelevant.
Shalit labels the writers mentioned above as “insider outsiders,” whereas other, more palatable writers are “insider insiders.” Setting aside the obvious comic potential of this callisthenic category assigning, this line of thinking doesn’t take into account the numerous ways there are to be an insider. Insiderness, at least the kind that’s useful when writing fiction, is neither easily shed nor easily adapted. When you write fiction, it’s not about who has fewer sins to atone for each Yom Kippur. Insiderness comes from sitting in synagogue every Sabbath as a little girl and watching the women whisper from under domed straw hats; from being draped under your father’s prayer shawl as the Cohanim bless the congregation; it comes from years of afikomen hunts and from being able to know from a few blocks away that the guy in the khakis and Tommy Hilfiger shirt is going to have a yarmulke on his head. Maybe most importantly, it comes from knowing that transgressions, large or small, don’t threaten the entire system.
But the fact that we are insiders to the Orthodox world is irrelevant. Since when must a fiction writer actually have lived the life he or she writes about? Since when must one be a murderer to write “Crime and Punishment,” a pedophile to write “Lolita,” a hermaphrodite to write “Middlesex,” a boy on a boat with a tiger to write “Life of Pi”? Yes, it seems, Shalit has outed the whole tawdry lot of us. She’s revealed to the public the terrible truth: Fiction writers make up things.
What is true is that these portrayals apparently don’t capture Shalit’s experience of being a baal teshuvah, or to use her definition, “a deeply observant Jew who did not grow up as one,” they aren’t consistent with the personal fulfillment she’s found recently. And this, I suspect, is what bothers Shalit most. But instead of being able to allow for that difference of experience, she labels these other portrayals as false. If someone doesn’t see Orthodoxy as she does, then he or she must not really understand it. Englander has said that he experienced his upbringing as “anti-intellectual.” But she doesn’t think it was, so what right does he have to say this, least of all publicly? It’s this discounting and de-legitimizing of any individual experience other than her own that is so troubling.
It’s bad enough she does this to people. What’s worse is that she does it to fictional characters. She attacks books for depicting characters who deviate from communal norms. Englander besmirches Judaism by depicting a fight in a synagogue. Rosen creates a character, an unmarried Orthodox man who sleeps with a female Reform rabbi. Reich imagines an overweight dietician who gorges on Yom Kippur. People like Shalit attack a story by saying, “But not everyone is like this.” Of course not. But the fiction writer is saying, “Let’s imagine one person who is.”
The variety and particularity of human experience, this is the stuff of fiction. Novels ask what it feels like to be a particular person; they seek to burrow into a life, an inner consciousness. Fiction isn’t about what people should do or should feel. It doesn’t set out to confirm what we already believe. Reading isn’t an exercise in seeing ourselves as we wish to be seen; novels are not dolled-up photographs in which no one blinks and we always look our best.
But then, “The Observant Reader” isn’t really about fiction. It’s about ideology. Shalit espouses an approach to literature in which the message matters most of all. The crucial question is whether the portrayal is positive or negative. Shalit can allow for some small moments of human pettiness, as long as they never challenge any pre-held truth. Ultimately, she’s advocating fiction as kiruv, or outreach, books kosher enough to be handed out from mitzvah mobiles along with candlesticks and with invitations to Sabbath dinners. It’s fiction as travel brochure, advertising scenic Meah Shearim, tranquil, peaceful Monsey.
It could very well be scenic, tranquil and peaceful: That’s one of the stories that fiction can illuminate. Take Shalit’s story, for example. If I were to write “Wendy Shalit: The Novel,” I would think about what makes someone transform her life, what it feels like to be so new to a world and so certain. But her insistence that this is the only legitimate possibility is what’s so disturbing. “In real life, thousands of people each year enter the religious fold,” she writes. And there are therefore thousands of permutations of stories. Might not one of them sneak a taste of shrimp salad now and then? And even if not, even if all of them have the exact same experience as Shalit, might not fiction still seek to imagine a different scenario?
Her notion of fiction brings to mind the world described in Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran”: “We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent — namely, ideology.” The Orthodox world might not be Tehran but it does not enjoy an uncomplicated relationship to artistic expression and open exploration; when I read “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” it made me wonder about the experience of reading Lolita in Boro Park. Literature in service of some other value is not literature, or at least not good literature. When we require our novels to promote, idealize and proselytize, we strip them of their capacity to explore, express, examine and, most importantly, imagine other lives besides those we actually live. The act of reading lets all of us be inside and outside at the same time.
And that’s what’s so threatening and so exhilarating about books. There’s a reason that the mullahs of Tehran ban books, and a reason that Shalit finds these books so problematic. Books are dangerous and interesting because they’re about people, and people are dangerous and interesting. Ideologically driven art wants to tell us that people do not feel these things; they do not think these things; they do not do these things. But they do. At least sometimes. At least some of us. Even if just one of us. Or just an imaginary one of us. Ideologically driven art seeks to shackle the idea of an inner life. It wants us to believe that all is well, that nothing need be questioned. I want to read and write books about people who aren’t always sure, who don’t always know, who struggle and question and pray and desire and doubt and hope. I want to read and write about insider insiders and insider outsiders and outsider outsiders and outsider insiders. It’s my characters’ inner lives, their individual experiences, their beliefs, their doubts, their practice and their personalities I want to lay bare.
Oh, and as for my own sheitel? Sorry, Wendy. Only my hairdresser knows for sure.
Tova Mirvis is the author of two novels, “The Outside World” and “The Ladies Auxiliary.”